What does it mean when Corrections says we will place the victim at the centre of our concerns in the family violence context?

Julie Sach

Practice Manager, Probation and Case Management, Central Region, Department of Corrections

Rachel Smith

Lead Coordinator Family Violence Death Review Committee*, Health Quality & Safety Commission

Author biographies:

Julie has worked in the family violence field for over 20 years in both the government and NGO sectors.  She has been involved in victim support and restorative justice and brings a victim perspective to her work with offenders.  Her Masters of Counselling thesis was about understanding the gendered nature of family violence in programme design for women who commit acts of violence.  She has been part of the design team and a trainer for the family violence training rolled out nationally over the last three years in Corrections.

Rachel has worked in the family violence sector across local government, health and the voluntary sector in the UK and New Zealand. She has a Masters of Science in Human Rights from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

There is widespread appreciation that family violence is a ‘wicked’ problem.** The Family Violence Death Review Committee (FVDRC) death reviews suggest that this appreciation has not yet translated into frontline practice with women and children experiencing abuse. Instead, the everyday practice responses in New Zealand continue to be fragmented, siloed, simple in design and therefore often unsafe. The development of a person and whänau-centred integrated response is needed to effectively address the reality of people’s lives and reconfigure the current complex system of service provision (Herbert and Mackenzie, 2014). To enable such reforms a collective shift in mindset is necessary. This article focuses on how the Department of Corrections (Corrections) can enable safer responses.

Family violence practice in Corrections has developed considerably in the past decade, but there is still work to be done, as New Zealand society continues to experience violence at unacceptable levels. Corrections has made a commitment to place victims at the centre of our concern, but what does this really mean in the complex landscape of family violence? This article offers some reflections that may assist practitioners to consider how their thinking about family violence may be contributing to helpful or unhelpful responses to victims. It is our hope that these questions be used in reflective practice sessions to help Corrections staff make considered, defensible decisions that contribute to the ongoing safety of victims.

It means undertaking purposeful seeking of information as an analytic,
not administrative, activity

To keep victims safe we need to seek comprehensive information to fully understand the family or whänau’s past and current life. Corrections staff need key information held by other agencies as this may considerably change our response to a situation, if we know it. Therefore, the quality of our information-seeking needs attention.

Corrections staff need to firstly understand why they are seeking information; it needs to be a purposeful activity. For example, when we seek information from Child, Youth and Family as part of home detention inquiries, we must consider the whole situation, eg: Is this address suitable for home detention? What would be the impact on the partner or children of having this offender on home detention at this address? All information received then needs to be analysed (as it can sometimes be contradictory) so the practitioners can come to a view about the meaning, and decide how to proceed. This is a complex analytic activity.

It means holding perpetrators, not victims, accountable for the violence

There is often a tendency to focus on the actions of the victim – what they were doing, or should have been doing, how they responded, what they were thinking, or not thinking, what safety steps they are taking. When we do this it is easy to fall into the trap of laying the blame for the violence with the victim. We must always ensure our practice leaves the accountability for violence with the perpetrator. We need to learn to ask different questions, ones that focus on making perpetrators’ violence visible, and ask what practitioners are doing to mitigate the risks they pose to their partners and children (Wilson et al., 2015).

Victims resist violence and abuse, but their resistance is unlikely to stop the violence. Corrections is uniquely placed as one of the few agencies that has the mandate to engage with perpetrators to motivate and engage them in change. However, when perpetrators refuse to engage or are non-compliant with orders of the Court, it is vital that the Criminal Justice system responds with speed to ensure there is a consequence. Research suggests that timely responses that engage offenders in interventions can have a significant impact on outcomes (Gondolf, 2002 and 2012).

Corrections staff can also help to mitigate risk of harm to past, current and future victims by using restrictive elements of sentences and orders. This includes controls over living arrangements, addresses, movement and contact with others. However, caution should be exercised when these are being considered, as without reference to a victim such restrictions can heighten victims’ risk of harm. Reflective practice is vital to work through these complex dynamics and to assess the possibility of harm. For example, the needs and perspectives of the victim are important when considering non-association orders.

It means ensuring the victim’s context is understood fully and their voice is heard

File reviews in the context of family violence are critical if we are to understand family violence as a pattern of behaviour that is perpetrated across relationships. There is danger in locating the violence in a relationship – assuming that once that ‘volatile’ relationship has ended so has the violence. If we keep attaching the violence to the relationship and not the person this is dangerous for future victims.

We need to base our decisions on all available information. The previous convictions list alone is insufficient to give the worker a full appreciation of the level of risk a violent perpetrator may present. In recognition of this gap, the Ministry of Justice has piloted a report which provides judges making bail decisions with the defendant’s Police family violence history.*** Furthermore, the criminal justice process often reduces charges to gain guilty pleas, so that a Male Assaults Female charge can hide within events like a non-fatal strangulation. Charges like Wilful Damage can hide any relationship that may be present between a victim and an offender. The Summary of Facts is a very useful starting point to understand the context of the offending and can inform risk scenarios when formulating a risk assessment. It is important to remember that reported and convicted offending is generally the tip of the iceberg.

In order to avoid an over-reliance on what the perpetrator has to say about the situation, safe practice involves verifying information from other sources, including gaining a victim’s perspective. Other agencies who work with victims may agree to act as a third-party go-between so that her views can at least be canvassed. Sometimes contacting the victim is inappropriate – mostly this is when such contact would further endanger her safety. At these times other agencies can assist a practitioner to find out more about her world – for example, we can access victim impact statements through Police.

It means understanding and responding to risk in the family violence context

Corrections staff have both static (RoC RoI) and dynamic (DRAOR, SDAC-21) risk assessment tools to assist in their work. It is critical for practitioners to know and understand their risk assessment tools, what they specifically assess, and their limitations or gaps. For example, ‘family violence only’ offenders generally score as low risk using the RoC RoI static assessment, but this is not a tool that is designed to assess risk to a particular Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) victim. While not specifically a family violence risk assessment tool, DRAOR places significant focus on factors pertinent to harm and imminence of harm in family violence offending. Acute factors like Anger/Hostility, Opportunity Access to Victims, Substance Abuse, Negative Mood, Interpersonal Relationships and Living Situation provide the probation officer with evidence-based information in order to determine the necessary response/action. DRAOR Stable factors support the probation officer to consider/target the underlying drivers of family violence like impulse control, problem solving, sense of entitlement and attachment to others.

The NZ Police use the Ontario Domestic Abuse Risk Assessment (ODARA) tool. This assesses the likelihood of intimate partner re-assault. Corrections staff can access this information but they need to understand what the scoring means. This could well inform the rationale for the escalation of an overall risk of harm assessment in the face of a low RoC RoI. Other risk factors like step-parenting, transient families and non-fatal strangulation need to be considered and recognised by practitioners as red flags for escalation in risk.

Accurately assessing risk is important, but the quality of the response to that risk is critical. DRAOR asks practitioners to formulate most likely and most serious risk scenarios based on their assessment. Such risk scenarios are dynamic, changing as new information is gained. In order to be truly preventative, practitioners need to individually and collectively develop their anticipatory thinking capabilities. We need to anticipate beyond the reported incident and the individuals involved, to consider who are potential victims and then develop an appropriate response to the risk identified. The introduction of reflective practice sessions, where collegial discussions can develop such thinking, are critical to developing our expertise.

It means using accurate language to enable safer practice responses from our key stakeholders

Corrections staff write about family violence in many contexts – pre-sentence and parole reports, emails and case notes. The language used to describe family violence strongly influences how the reader then responds. Family violence is frequently redefined as “altercations”, “volatile relationships”, “abusive relationships”, “domestic incidents” etc. This redefinition can conceal violence, diminish the perpetrators’ responsibility and further blame and pathologise victims’ behaviours. We need to challenge the view that bad relationships cause family violence – this is just another way of blaming victims. Accurate information and accurate descriptions are the first indispensable step in forming effective responses.

It means responding to victims’ needs and concerns

The consistency of practitioners’ responses to disclosures of violence is critical. Richardson and Wade (2010) state that the quality of social (this includes organisational) responses to victims’ disclosures may be the best single predictor of the level of victim distress. Marginalised and disadvantaged people are more likely to receive negative social responses.

Victims who receive positive social responses:

  • tend to recover more quickly and fully
  • are more likely to work with authorities
  • are more likely to report violence in future.

Conversely, victims who receive negative social responses are:

  • less likely to co-operate with authorities
  • less likely to disclose violence again
  • more likely to experience distress
  • more likely to receive diagnosis of mental disorder.

Practitioners can shy away from direct contact with a victim, often for fear of re-traumatising them. It is our contention that it is not the contact itself that can re-traumatise, but the way in which the contact is made. If victims feel disrespected, judged or misunderstood the contact may well jeopardise the possibility that the victim will reach out for further assistance. Whether or not to have contact with a victim is the professional decision of the practitioner in consultation with colleagues, practice leaders and managers. However, to avoid contact because of our own fears may mean we are denying a victim an opportunity to engage with us and to have a voice, and we could be missing important information.

Any contact with victims must aim to uphold their dignity by truly listening to their situation and offering a response. When talking with a victim it is important to firstly listen to them. We need to:

  • acknowledge and validate
  • reassure: there is no excuse for abuse
  • check current safety of her and the children.

It means responsible sharing of information with care and concern

There are times when practitioners can feel restricted by privacy legislation in what they can tell someone. The review of the Domestic Violence Act asked if legislation should stipulate that safety concerns trump privacy concerns.**** Whilst this review is underway, it is critical to remember that we can confidently share information when the disclosure is necessary to prevent or lessen a serious and imminent threat to public health or public safety; or the life or health of the individual concerned or another individual.

If we understand family violence as a harmful pattern of behaviour, then responsible disclosures are necessary to interrupt violence and lessen the threat a perpetrator’s behaviour poses victims.

It means protecting information that is shared to promote safety

Practitioners have a number of ways to protect victims who reach out for assistance.

Examples include:

  • Sect 13 Parole Act 2002 means the NZ Parole Board can consider a Confidentiality Order
  • Sect 28 (2) Sentencing Act 2002 allows a Confidential Memo to Court
  • Privacy Act 1993 Section 29 (1) says that if confidentiality has been implied or promised there are grounds for non-disclosure.

It means developing safety strategies which involve practitioners

Too often safety planning in family violence work has become a ‘to do list’ for victims, over burdening an already frightened and vulnerable person. Creating safety is a collective responsibility and professionals working with a family need to write themselves into the safety plan and be responsible for taking the actions delegated to them. Agencies who work together in family violence need to build strong relationships so that genuine collaboration can occur, and professionals can challenge each other when practice falls short. This can only occur in an atmosphere of trust and respect.

Summary

Corrections staff must be able to respond safely to disclosures of violence from victims, perpetrators, whänau and other practitioners.

To do this we need to consider all the points of contact with Corrections; report writing, recommending sentences, managing and monitoring sentences. Practitioners are not responsible for the violence but they are accountable for how they respond. It is practitioners and the system that are charged with responding to family violence, not victims. Effective practitioner responses to family violence can create safety and restore dignity (Richardson and Wade, 2010).

Reflective questions to assist in placing the victim at the centre of our concerns

Perpetrator

Victim

  • In my work, who am I holding accountable for the violence?
  • How am I holding the perpetrator to account?
  • Am I using accurate language that makes the violence visible and does not minimise it?
  • Have I verified the information I have from the perpetrator?
  • What else do I need to know?
  • Do I understand the victim’s context/views?
  • Are there multiple victims?
  • Am I keeping victim (and child) safety paramount?
  • Am I judging the victim?
  • What supports does the victim have in place already?
  • What can I contribute to her safety?
  • Am I considering the children who are impacted by the violence?

Risk

Requesting and sharing information

  • Do I have enough information to fully understand the context of the violence?
  • Where could I get more information?
  • Could my proposed action place her and her children at further risk?
  • Does my risk assessment reflect the dynamics of IPV risk?
  • What other risk assessments have been done?
  • What other red flags are present in this situation?
  • What other agencies are involved?
  • What is my relationship with this agency and how can I strengthen it?
  • Am I asking the right questions of the right people?
  • What questions should I ask?
  • Am I talking directly to the key stakeholders?
  • Am I communicating my concerns accurately?
  • Am I listening to others’ concerns?

Practitioner

Manager

  • How competent do I feel to be working in this space?
  • What additional support do I need?
  • Where could I access that?
  • How am I keeping up to date with professional knowledge in family violence work?

Same as practitioner, plus

  • How can I best support my staff member in this situation?

 

References

Gondolf, E., Batterer Intervention Systems: Issues, Outcomes and Recommendations, Thousand Oaks CA, SAGE publications, 2002.

Gondolf, E., The Future of Batterer Programs: Reassessing Evidence-Based Practice, Boston, Northeastern University Press, 2012.

Herbert, R., and Mackenzie, D., The Way Forward: an integrated system for intimate partner violence and child abuse and neglect in New Zealand, Wellington, The Impact Collective, 2014.

Richardson, C. and A. Wade, A., ‘Islands of safety: restoring dignity in violence-prevention work with indigenous families’, First Peoples Child and Family Review, Vol. 5, no. 1, 2010, pp.137-45.

Wilson, D., Smith, R., Tolmie, J. and Haan I., Becoming Better Helpers, Policy Quarterly, Vol. 11, no.1, 2015, pp. 25-31.


*

**1 This material has been derived from the death reviews conducted on behalf of the Family Violence Death Review Committee http://www.hqsc.govt.nz/our-programmes/mrc/fvdrc/about-us/members/

A problem that is both complex and resists resolution.

*** Since 1 September 2015, Judges and Registrars making bail decisions in the Porirua and Christchurch District Courts have been provided with a Police Family Violence Summary Report which details all the defendant’s recorded family violence incidents, Police Safety Orders and Protection Orders, including any breaches. https://nzfvc.org.nz/news/pilot-provides-judges-defendants-family-violence-history

**** http://www.justice.govt.nz/consultations/previous-consultations/better-family-violence-law/discussion-document